The African Open Science Platform (AOSP), which has been hosted by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa since 2020, aims to position scientists and science systems in Africa at the cutting edge of data-intensive open science. The Platform was first initiated in 2017, and is now ramping up its activities following the appointments of Tshiamo Motshegwa as Director and Nokuthula Mchunu as Deputy-Director.
We caught up with Tshiamo and Nokuthula to find out more.
How did you first get involved with the African Open Science Platform? What do you find most exciting about this work?
Tshiamo: The African Open Science Platform (AOSP) has been long in the making. When I was at the University of Botswana, I was involved in the stakeholder engagement during the AOSP pilot study conducted across the continent to assess Open Science capacity and activity, and thereby establish the baseline for Open Science in Africa. The pilot resulted in a widely disseminated comprehensive pilot study and development of guiding frameworks on policy, infrastructure, incentives and capacity building.
I’ve since been working on how open data and open science can be used to address challenges, both at the regional level and nationally in Botswana. Over the past decade, as part of the Department of Computer Science University of Botswana engagement and Botswana Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional representation, I’ve been involved in the development of regional cyber infrastructure in Southern African countries. The impetus has been to create a shared commons, and to support regional integration in science, technology and innovation through the prism of infrastructure.
At first, the emphasis was on infrastructure, and making sure that African scientists have access to computational infrastructure, especially connectivity, through the national research and education network (NREN)’s and universities’ and institutional provision of high performance computing (HPC) facilities – especially in preparedness for engagement in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Project. But we recognize infrastructure alone isn’t enough: we need to make sure that it is fully utilized, and that means conceptualisation of more collaborative projects, including cross-border, regional and African-wide projects.
Nokuthula: Before I moved to the AOSP I worked on a lot of collaborative projects, both in the university and at the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa. I was based in the biotechnology – or genomics – platform, which shares resources across the agricultural sector and with some of the universities. Genomics lends itself to having shared, open data, and it’s always interested me. Before having this concept of open access and open data we used the word collaborative. I think the AOSP is the right step for African countries. It may take a lot of sweat, but in this day and age open science is the way to go!
Tshiamo: Open science and implementation of an international open science framework can contribute to and provide impetus for the transformation of the scientific enterprise. Africa is also a very young continent, and therefore, there’s so much potential to build skills and to excite young people about science. There are some challenges that are peculiar to us in Africa, and also opportunities. Take the issue of indigenous knowledge: how can we bring that to the rest of the world through projects that embrace and promote open science principles? That could be a differentiator.
The issue of open access is also key to Africa. We have an opportunity to democratize science and access to scientific literature by Africans and African institutions. We may need new models and systems of publishing and of incentives to make sure that institutions also propagate open access. It will be useful to look for synergies with the ISC’s ongoing work on scientific publishing.
The African Union has very strong and progressive statements on how science can be used to address the challenges of the continent, but on the ground a lot more can be done across many aspects – ranging from investment in research, infrastructure and human capital development to strengthen and build African research, science and innovation enterprises fit for purpose. That is crucial.
Access to infrastructure is a big issue. As a computer scientist, I am aware of the need for and lack of computational infrastructure in the continent. More often than not, the continent has well trained, competent researchers, but often the conditions are not favourable for research – for example for research that requires high-end computational infrastructure including for modelling across domains such as weather and climate, genetics and bioinformatics, engineering design, and others. As a result, these very capable scientists leave the continent because they are handicapped and frustrated by lack of access to infrastructure. A Pan-African research cloud or infrastructure that will allow us to do better science is critical. Infrastructure is one of the tenets of the AOSP. There are strong existing projects through the African National Educational Research Networks (NREN) that have helped provide connectivity to institutions in the continent. Going forward, the hope is to make sure that more and more African countries are connected to a network of networks that can form the baseline infrastructure, on top of which you can do interesting things and stem the brain drain of scientists. AOSP can play a role there, in collaboration with stakeholders, including internationally and with industry, to make sure that access to infrastructure is not a bottleneck for doing science on the continent. For example, the AfricaConnect3 Project and previous iterations of this EU Africa collaboration on NRENs and connectivity has improved connectivity significantly over the past number of years, but – going forward – advanced services including data services, will be the key focus, as well as digital transformation and indeed open science regarding what NRENs can support, and AOSP can play a role in this regard, engaging with NRENs and regional RENS.
What have the first couple of months at AOSP been like?
Tshiamo: There’s been so much expectation and anticipation about AOSP. Rightly so, because the landscape study was completed in 2018, and this AOSP leadership has been appointed to come and drive the implementation phase of AOSP forward.
There is concerted effort to make sure that AOSP delivers and lives up to stakeholders’ expectations through its value proposition. We’re engaging and communicating across various platforms to share and disseminate information about what AOSP is and its value proposition in order to build a wide, diverse and representative membership base. From this diverse and continental wide membership, relevant, strong AOSP Governance structures can be put in place. It’s been hectic, but positive in that we have an opportunity to connect with stakeholders so that we can move along with them in the future. We’ll be attending the Africa Regional Science Technology and Innovation Forum and Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development in Rwanda, including engaging in UNESCO Open Science Recommendation sessions there to further dialogue on implementation of the international Open Science framework and African efforts in that direction. We are also engaging in national fora regarding Open Science – especially as AOSP will drive, guide and support Regional AOSP Nodes to promote Open Science in their provinces. For example, we have been involved in the dialogue platforms for development of the South African open science policy.
What does building a membership base for the platform involve? Who can become a member, and how?
Tshiamo: We’re currently developing a process for members to join. As highlighted in the AOSP strategy, the membership base will be varied, including institutions that are responsible for conducting research, higher education, research consortia, NGOs and funding bodies etc. The emphasis will be on those institutions that carry a strong mandate for research in their countries, regionally and also internationally. The role of industry is also going to be very significant. Existing networks across the board in various domains will also be key stakeholders and potential members, and we are looking forward to engaging them as AOSP is looking to build a network of networks.
Nokuthula: Of course, members will be residents of African Union Member States. Other global partners may be able to join as observers, but they will not have voting rights on the governance of the platform.
Tshiamo: The AOSP will be as strong as its members. By the end of this year, there will be a Governing Council made up of members or representation from the membership, which will take over from the current advisory council made up of volunteer experts who have guided AOSP development to date.
For anyone reading this who is interested in getting involved, what should they do?
Tshiamo: We have a website in development at https://aosp.org.za/ and we’re constantly adding information about joining to that. The website will evolve into a comprehensive portal highlighting Open Science activities in the continent, including on AOSP pillars, but in the meantime Nokuthula and I are available to receive enquiries.
Where do you hope the platform will be at the end of the year?
Tshiamo: We’re taking a pragmatic approach. One of the most immediate things we want to do is to reconnect with our stakeholders, and to do an updated gap analysis looking at what has been happening in Africa since the AOSP study was published in 2018. We will be at the upcoming international data week in Korea, and the World Science Forum, which is coming to Cape Town, where AOSP will have Sessions to engage stakeholders. We also recently engaged at the 4th Africa Regional Science, Technology and Innovation Forum (ARSTIF) and 8th Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development (ARFSD) in Kigali, Rwanda in March
The other key thing is to communicate the value proposition of AOSP. Resource mobilization is paramount to securing the sustainability of the platform, so we need to demonstrate the value of the platform to members and to funding bodies. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that there are projects that will be running under the mantle of – or at least in association with – AOSP. We often have projects that run in a particular region or country but have the potential to grow in terms of their scope. We’ve identified a number of projects in areas like health and data science, weather and climate, the blue economy etc, that provide very good opportunities. In addition, Southern Africa will host part of the Square Kilometre Array project. These kinds of global projects have a significant footprint in terms of data and can be used to promote best practices in open science.
We are also planning to have made progress on identifying and appointing regional nodes to host AOSP instances in other countries by the end of the year.
The issue of capacity building is critical, and we’re looking for alignments to make sure that we can build a community and a network of educational skills. Additionally, we want to establish a very robust monitoring and evaluation framework so that AOSP will be a learning institution. Aligned with this is the need to develop robust Open Science indicators – especially given ongoing development of Africa science, technology and innovation indicators through the African STI Observatory
We’re also considering how we can look at multi-domain data sets that could be easily and readily exploited to advance aspects of science that are relevant to current challenges. For example, there has been good progress in developing COVID-19 vaccines in low and middle income countries (LMICs) through the availability of open data on some of these vaccines. It is critical for us to have an institute or a platform that allows us to quickly use openly available datasets – so the AOSP-envisaged Data and AI institute is an avenue we will be looking to progress.
In summary, I think the key thing for the continent is to embrace the growing trend regarding development of global commons to solve global challenges, and that the African continent can participate meaningfully in this movement, by ensuring that our science and technology ecosystems are fit for purpose, and more importantly, by building collaborative networks in the continent across borders though a functional AOSP.
Dr Tshiamo Motshegwa is a computer scientist and an academic in High-Performance Computing and Data Science research. He has interests in the science, policy, industry and public interface, and multilateral engagements for advancing open science collaboration. For the past seven years he has served on various Ministerial Committees of the Government of Botswana, Southern African Development Community (SADC) Expert Working Groups, as well as in the Botswana Open Data Open Science (ODOS) Forum.
Dr Nokuthula Mchunu is a Senior Researcher from the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa in the Biotechnology Platform. She completed her doctoral degree in fungal genomics, was previously a senior scholar in the Department of Biotechnology of Durban University of Technology for more than 15 years. Dr Mchunu brings a wealth of experience in academia outreach programmes, the popularisation of science, and open science.
Image by NASA via Flickr.